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Growing Up With an Addict
How a family can heal
Reported by James “Jamell” Bodrick
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When a parent or other loved one suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction, it has an effect on the entire family, and especially on the kids. We talked to Dr. Kim Sumner-Mayer, a licensed family therapist who helps family members understand addiction and work out the problems that are caused by a loved one’s addiction. Sumner-Mayer works at the Center on Addiction and the Family at Phoenix House in Brooklyn, New York.

Q: What makes a parent turn to a drug? How can someone do that if they know that they have kids to take care of?

A: No one ever says, “I want to be a drug addict when I grow up.” There are lots of reasons why people start using. Sometimes they don’t know how to solve problems, or they’re in a lot of pain and looking for quick escape, trying to numb out sadness. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t figured out good solutions to life’s problems. And once they start using they can’t stop.

When someone is in active addiction it looks to everyone else like they love drugs more than they love their families, but what’s going on is they don’t have a choice because their body craves that substance. They need it like you need air and water, and getting it becomes the single most important thing.

Q: What makes it impossible for addicted parents to do what’s best for their kids or other loved ones?

A: Basically, the brain can’t function normally anymore with the drug, and you feel awful without it. You crave it so much that you forget about all your other priorities. It doesn’t matter if the baby needs a diaper change or if your older child needs your time. You can convince yourself of the craziest things when this is happening. You convince yourself that if the child has clothes on his back and food on his plate, you’re being a good parent even if you’re not there for him emotionally.

You may even blame your loved ones for the addiction: “If you didn’t stress me out this much, I wouldn’t need to use these drugs.” At some level, addicts know they’re not doing right by their kids. And they often feel horribly guilty about it, so they numb themselves out.

Q: What are some common ways that kids feel when their parent or another family member is addicted?

A: A child growing up with addiction doesn’t know any other way—does a fish know it’s wet? If the family is very secretive, then secrets are normal for that child. If the parent seems fine one day and out of control the next, that’s what you think is normal. If your parent expects you to cook them dinner when you’re 8, you think that’s normal because it’s all you know. You may even think violence is normal.

It can be hard for kids in families with addicted parents to know what’s a normal way of showing affection. Maybe no one hugged each other except when the parent was high. Maybe no one said “I love you,” or only said it when the parent was high. Or boundaries around touching one another aren’t respected. So a child doesn’t learn these things.

There’s often a lot of secrecy, too. The child may feel like it’s not OK to tell what’s going on. They fear that if they tell someone they’re going to be removed, or their parent will get in trouble with the law. That isolation and keeping quiet reinforces the idea that they’re all alone, and maybe even that it’s their fault.

A lot of kids feel that it’s their responsibility to make the addiction stop. When you’re little and you rely on someone else and something terrible happens, you have two choices: You can say “I’m powerless” or “I’m powerful.”

If you say, “I’m powerless,” that can be awfully scary and can lead to getting depressed. If you say, “I’m powerful,” it means you believe you can do something to make the situation change. That can be a helpful way to feel, but no one can make the addict change until the addict wants to change. It’s not your responsibility.

It’s helpful to remember the “three C’s of addiction”: You didn’t Cause your parent’s addiction; you can’t Control it; and you can’t Cure it. If you can accept the three C’s, you can start to take care of yourself instead of always trying to get the other person to change.

Q: Can a child motivate a parent to quit? Can people recover on their own without rehab?

A: Treatment does work, and yes, children are a huge motivator to many parents. But wanting to quit is not the same as being able to quit. Most parents don’t understand at first how much their addiction has hurt their children. The further they get in recovery, the more they understand it.

Most addicts are not able to stay off drugs for a solid year on their first try. If they go to treatment, their chances are much better. Most people are going to have relapses along the way to sobriety. Relapse is not failure. It’s like when you first learned to ride a bike: You fell, but you got back on. Each time you fell, your muscles learned something that helped you eventually stay up on the bike.

Q: If my parent takes a drug, am I more likely to abuse drugs? Is it genetic?

A: There’s no such thing as a gene that makes you pick up a drug and use it—that’s a choice. But some people are more likely to become hooked. The statistics are that if you have an addicted parent, your chances are about one in four that you’ll develop your own addiction problem. But that means that chances are three in four that you won’t.

The key to prevention is, don’t start. If you don’t use, you can’t get addicted. If you’re already using because you’re trying to solve life’s problems, you need to find different ways to do that. Learn how to be patient in dealing with a big problem, and break it down into smaller pieces. Learn how to seek support from people around you.

image by Axel Almendarez

Lots of addicts are not in touch with how they feel. They have a hard time teaching their children to understand their own feelings. Part of treatment is to help people learn to identify and name their feelings so they can do better problem-solving.

Q: Is it true that if a mother takes drugs while she’s pregnant it can affect her child’s brain and learning?

A: It depends on the drug. And it depends on when, how much, and how often the mother used it during her pregnancy. Alcohol has specific effects on a developing fetus that can affect a fetus’s physical and mental/cognitive development, and those effects can last throughout life. There’s something called fetal alcohol syndrome and/or fetal alcohol effects that happens with children whose mothers drink heavily during certain points in their pregnancy.

For all other drugs, research tells us that the environment you live in after you’re born is usually more important to determining your outcome than your mother’s womb was. If you have the right kind of support growing up, you can often do just as well as anyone else.

Q: How can you talk to your family member if you have concerns about a drug addiction?

A: If you want to make progress with your parent, you need to let them know how their problems affected you. Try saying, “I feel” instead of, “you did.”

You have a right to all your feelings, and anger is a natural response to the things that happened that were not fair and not right. But reacting angrily toward the person who hurt you may not be the most effective. Try letting out those feelings to your support network before and after confronting a parent. Express the stuff that wasn’t safe to express when you were younger.

Lots of times in families with addiction, people don’t know how to argue fairly. You have to learn how to work through being let down, learning that you can love someone and still express anger to them. A lot of people in families with addiction don’t have experience with that.

You also have to be prepared for your parent not changing as a result of your expressing your thoughts and feelings. But expressing your feelings can help you take care of yourself, and it may contribute to a parent’s decision to make changes.

Remember never to confront a parent who is drunk or high. You will get nowhere helpful, and it could get dangerous.

Finally, don’t hesitate to seek out professional help before and/or after confronting a parent. A counselor or therapist can help you understand your parent’s behavior, your responses to it, and your entire family situation better. They can also help you communicate with your family in ways that support your well-being and your right to a healthy, happy future.

Q: How can kids cope and where can we get help?

A: The most important thing that can help a child is to talk and learn about addiction so she can understand she has choices for her life. When you learn about how addiction works, you begin to understand it’s not your fault. That can be very helpful.

You have to talk to people you trust: a supportive teacher, family member, friend, pastor, mentor, counselor, or therapist. You can also call a hotline, go to an Alateen meeting, reach out and look for help.


Getting Help

If you have a parent or other family member who is an addict and you want to get help, call one of these organizations:

National Association for Children of Alcoholics
1-888-554-COAS (2627)

Alateen
A support group for teens who have alcoholic family members
1-800-344-2666

You can also visit Phoenix House FAQ page for more answers to frequently asked questions about families and addiction.

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